'Ferrari of space' set to fall to Earth

Sep 12, 2013
Undated artist's impression of the Gravity Ocean Circulation Explorer satellite. Dubbed the "Ferrari of space" for its sleek, finned looks, it will shortly run out of fuel and fall to Earth after a successful mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) says.

A science satellite dubbed the "Ferrari of space" for its sleek, finned looks will shortly run out of fuel and fall to Earth after a successful mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) says.

Launched in 2009, the satellite—a hi-tech craft designed to monitor gravity and —is likely to break up in mid-October, its mission manager told AFP on Wednesday.

The Gravity Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) orbits at an extremely low altitude of just 260 kilometres (160 miles), where there are lingering molecules of atmosphere.

To reduce drag, it has an arrow-like octagonal shape and two fins to provide extra aerodynamic stability, a departure from the box-like form of satellites that operate in the complete vacuum of space.

It stays aloft thanks to an ion engine that began with a stock of 41 kilos (90.2 pounds) of fuel and is now down to about two kilos (4.4 pounds), Rune Floberghagen said from an ESA symposium in Edinburgh, Scotland.

"We are facing the situation where the electrical which keeps the flying at this extremely low altitude will stop working somewhere between the end of September and the beginning of November—the best engineering prediction is in the middle, somewhere in the 16th or 17th October," he said.

Most of the 5.3-metre (17.2-foot) spacecraft will break up and burn when it tumbles to an altitude of 75 to 80 kilometres, he said.

According to re-entry analysis, about 250 kilos of its one-tonne mass will survive, hitting the surface in a trail of "between 40 and 50 fragments" extending over 900 kilometres, he said.

It was impossible right now to say where the trail would be, as the re-entry is uncontrolled, Floberghagen said.

He explained that it was only in 2008, after GOCE was designed and built, that an international agreement required research satellites to have propulsion enabling a targeted re-entry that leads to a breakup over the ocean, thus reducing the risk of impacting inhabited areas.

"It is much less than other (uncontrolled) re-entries, it is a very small aircraft in fact. We should put this into perspective and not over-dramatise what is happening here," he said, adding that ESA was advising national authorities on the upcoming event.

Floberghagen said the fuel was supposed to last 20 months.

But the mission has been hugely helped by extremely low solar activity, which also reduces the density of air molecules at this height.

As a result, the 350-million-euro ($465-million) mission, after teething problems, has lasted twice has long as scheduled.

"Everyone is extremely happy with this mission, both in our ability to monitor Earth's gravity field, and also the spinoff achievements, our ability to understand and use the payload onboard," said Floberghagen.

"The science achievements have been rather remarkable and we have demonstrated a lot of new technologies," he said.

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Birger
1 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2013
I wish they had added a small solid fuel rocket to send it up to a higher altitude, and a port for robotic refuelling.
Jeddy_Mctedder
1 / 5 (13) Sep 12, 2013
it remains astounding that ALL current sattelites being built and planned are not standardized with a refueling methodology.

if the people who drone on about building space stations out of captured meteorites cannot even focus on repurposing nearly ready made MASS of known composition , essentially finding a way to reuse what is in our own backyard, how in hell are they going to MINE an asteroid and manufacture final products from initial constituents.

absurd space propoganda. until sattelites stop falling out of the sky because money is to be made from repurposing their mass, i believe capturing asteroids is a total and utter waste of money.

nasa should be studying how to destroy asteroids or move them out of earth crashing trajectories. nasa should not be focussing on 'capturing' asteroids. focus on capturing abandoned satelites first.

why is common sense missing from space policy?
Hoama
1.4 / 5 (9) Sep 12, 2013
nasa should be studying how to destroy asteroids or move them out of earth crashing trajectories. nasa should not be focussing on 'capturing' asteroids. focus on capturing abandoned satelites first.


Are you really that dense? "Capturing" an asteroid requires moving it. Where exactly do you think NASA should start such research? Should we just start lobbing nukes up there and see what happens?

Give us your bright ideas oh sage one.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (10) Sep 12, 2013
It was impossible right now to say where the trail would be, as the re-entry is uncontrolled, Floberghagen said.
If the satellite could be controlled from Earth, that is, if it were possible to shut down the ion engine remotely, then it would be possible to ensure that it fall into the ocean by timing its shutdown. I find it puzzling that a simple remote switch wasn't a part of the satellite's design. 250 kilos falling out of the sky can do a lot of damage. A basic option that this "Ferrari" doesn't even have.
Anda
1 / 5 (1) Sep 13, 2013
Should have launched a "Red bull renault"...
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Sep 13, 2013
it remains astounding that ALL current sattelites being built and planned are not standardized with a refueling methodology.

Start looking up where these satelites are for the most part.
Then do the calcs on what it would take to get a refueling vehicle there (and possibly back).
You will quickly see that it's a lot cheaper to just replace sattelites once in a while (also better, since you can upgrade the hardware specs)
Reuse/refueling only makes sense if it doesn't cost more than building/launching something new.

GOCE was a low level sattelite that still felt some atmospheric drag (which is the reason why it looks the way it does). Its mission is complete. There's no use keeping it in orbit.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (4) Sep 13, 2013
cheaper to replace sats
Your paradigm may change somewhat with the advent of on-orbit fuel depots and robotic servicing.
http://en.wikiped...nt_depot

-Some expensive sats could be designed with extended mission parameters to include refueling, repair, and upgrading.